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The Biosocial Approach.

The social learning and cognitive development theories, then, can be seen to be proceeding from two different starting points. Social learning suggests that a child is rewarded for gender specific behaviours and therefore comes to regard itself as belonging to that gender.

Cognitive development starts with the premise that a child has a boyish, or girlish, personality and therefore likes the appropriate things.

The social learning approach cannot easily account for common behaviours over a range of widely differing cultures, often showing a common developmental sequence with age.

Cognitive developmental theories assume the existence of innate behaviours, that is, they are done right the first time. They do not, however, make any assumptions about biology.

Biosocial theorists, therefore, attempted to measure the behaviour of very young children, which they could assume were biologically based, and predict how they would translate into social behaviours. The problem is that children begin learning from the moment of birth. One cannot, however, ask a new-born baby how it construes the world.

However, from research into sex differences between babies, it is believed that girls may be twice as sensitive to noise as boys. There are studies that infer a greater interest in communication, in that 2-4 day old girls have been found to spend almost twice as long as boys in maintaining eye contact with a silent adult, and longer when the adult is talking.

Boys maintained the same eye contact whether the adult was talking or not, which was claimed to show a bias towards what they could see rather than what they could hear. It seems that, at four months old girls can usually distinguish pictures of people they know from people they don't, while boys, generally cannot. Even at one week, it has been suggested that girls can recognise the sound of a baby's cry from a general background noise.

Among the list of researched gender differences are that it is believed that female babies are hardier, more regular in their sleeping and eating patterns, more socially responsive, mature faster and are more sensitive to pain. For boys the differences are that they tend to sleep less, cry more, be more active, along with being more irritable and harder to pacify.

The biological argument suggests that this might predispose boys to be more assertive, restless, more ready for rough and tumble play, while girls might be predisposed to be biddable, cooperative and nurturing.

However, Thomas and his colleagues, and also Matheny,(1) however, showed that infants differ greatly in their temperament and behaviour, although such differences are present at birth and are reasonably consistent throughout at least the first year of life. Thus there is a range of innate variability, which does not fix infant, and later, behaviour immutably, but which forms the foundation.

Some writers suggest that the baby behaves in an innate boyish or girlish way, and that parents adapt to this. However, parents have expectations based on the knowledge that it is a boy or a girl.

In addition, some workers feel that even two year old children prefer stereotyped toys before they've become aware they are more appropriate, though any study of this must necessarily be subjective. Yet others suggest they prefer same sex toys and playmates before they begin to attend to same sex models. Others insist that small children are equally happy with any toy, whether they are boys or girls.

However, a new source of cultural behaviour shaping is entering the child's life - other children. While adults may, or may not, discourage certain forms of play, it is quite certain that children will make known to their peers their opinion of what is, and is not, appropriate.

In the end we are left with a dynamic situation between biological and social issues. If biologists suggest that the mother is merely reacting to the innate needs of the baby according to its sex, social theorists suggest that mothers are encouraging the baby to adopt their own sexual stereotypes.

If, from the cradle, girls like to gurgle at humans, while boys are equally happy to jabber away at cot toys or abstract geometric designs, then adults are likely to communicate more with girls and thus they will learn the to communicate sooner. But what about baby girls that communicate less, or boys that communicate more?

Are the biologists in danger of imposing their own stereotypes? We are told that "even before they can understand language, girls seem to be better at divining the emotional content of speech." What does this mean? Clearly, it is a variable based on the writer's subjective definition, without the objectivity which biologists claim.

Fairweather(2) carried out an exhaustive review of the literature on gender differences and concluded that at most, in childhood, there was a continuum in which girls might be able to use their hands more precisely and boys were more able in the use of the larger muscles. He further suggested that certain spatial abilities, in terms of body orientation might come from the use of these muscles.

We are back in the chicken and egg situation. Which came first? The mental ability which led to the physical ability, as the biologists would claim, or the experience leading to the appropriate mental equipment, as learning theorists would claim?

Nicholson(3) suggests that, when it comes to what babies actually do, there is little difference between the sexes. Not all babies behave in the same way; on the contrary, signs of a distinct individual personality can be seen in the way a child behaves from the very beginning. But an infant's sex is not a particularly strong predictor of what sort of behaviour it is likely to show. There is far more variety of behaviour amongst babies of the same sex than there is between a 'typical' boy and a 'typical' girl - an observation that applies to virtually every 'sex difference' between men and women. . . . . . If this [gender stereotyped behaviour of adults] is typical of the way mothers respond to babies, it seems likely that boys and girls, from a very early age, will form very different views about their ability to influence other people and to dictate the course of events. We can assume that if boys are allowed to call the tune in this way, they will be encouraged to behave independently and to expect that if they make their wishes known, they will get what they want. But the only lesson girls can learn from their treatment is that they are expected to lie quietly, passively waiting for things to happen before reacting.

Even though many studies, particularly those on adults(4), are quoted as supporting the biological basis, they in fact measure the way people are, and not how they got to be that way. There is nothing to show that the difference is not due to a common factor in a given culture. One study which was said to support innate developmental features relied on the self report of a group of two to three year-olds in a nursery school of a scientific community in America. It suggested that, among the beliefs boys had about themselves was that boys like to work hard.(5) Yet in a study conducted in a North of England school, a youngster said "If I worked hard, I wouldn't be a boy."(6) However, perhaps ideas change. The children quoted first were two and three year-olds, while the latter were six.

An important criticism of nearly all gender studies arises out of the Condrys' study. They asked whether observed differences in aggressive behaviour in such studies would still hold up if the children's sex was unknown. Words like fearful, aggressive and dependent may be used for very different behaviours and often biassed by the sex of the subjects, or even of the researcher. How many of such studies are 'blind' to the sex of the subjects?

Bibliography and good reading.

  1. Thomas, A., Chess, S., Birch, H.G., (1968) Temperament and Behaviour Disorders in Children, New York: New York University Press, also Matheny, A.P., (1980) Bayley's infant behaviour record: Behavioural components and twin analyses, Child Development, 51, (1157-67) in Williams, P., (1985) Personality, Development and Learning: Troubled Behaviour, Milton Keynes: Open University Press.
  2. Fairweather, H., (1976) Sex Differences in Cognition Cognition, 4(1976) 31-280, in Rose.S, Lewontin.R.C, Kamin.L.J, (1990) Not In Our Genes: Biology, Idealogy and Human Nature. (page 141) Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
  3. Nicholson J. (1984) Men and Women: How different are they? Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  4. Many studies suffer from the common psychologist's complaint that they are of middle-class western students in an American university.
  5. Kuhn, D., Nash, S.C., Brucken, L., (1978) Sex-role concepts of two and three year-olds, Child Development, 49,(445-51) in Czerniewska, P., (1965) Personality, Development and Learning: Educational Issues, Gender, (p17) Milton Keynes: Open University.
  6. BBC television Panorama: The Future is Female. 24th. Oct 1994.
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Bland. J. (2001) About Gender: The Biosocial Approach
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Web page copyright Derby TV/TS Group. Text copyright Jed Bland.
24.05.98 Last amended 11.11.01